"Video calling for prisoners might well be the best thing to come out of COVID in prisons."
Phil Copple Director General HMPPS
The Coronavirus outbreak forced many people to get to grips with using video technology as a safe way to connect and socialise. This includes people in prison who’ve been able to maintain contact with family and friends with the introduction of video calls in prisons across England and Wales.
As of September 2020, secure video calls were available in all young offenders and female prisons, and the majority of male prisons. Approximately 20,000 calls have been made since the service was first available. See which prisons offer video calls.
"If I don’t see my family I will lose them, if I lose them what have I got left?"
The Importance of Strengthening Prisoners' Family Ties to Prevent Reoffending and Reduce Intergenerational Crime
Lord Farmer, August 2017
Keeping in touch with family and friends is immensely important to people in prison. Maintaining strong connections has been shown to improve mental health as well as significantly reduce the likelihood of re-offending.
The User Centred Policy Design (UCPD) team were interested in what could be done to make it easier for people to maintain those precious social and family connections while in prison.
The UCPD team believed the best approach was a small pilot, one that would allow for iterative development - designing, testing, and learning quickly.
Starting small and moving quickly
In October 2019 the pilot plan was approved by Simon Marshall, Deputy Director, Head of Rehabilitation and Support Services, who supported its aims:
- Focus on meeting defined user needs
- Comply with security, legal and policy requirements
- Minimise risk
- Produce valuable evidence to inform next steps
The team started work with 4 prisons with very different populations so as to understand the pitfalls and positives associated with each of them. These included a prison for women, a prison with a high proportion of sex offenders and a prison for foreign nationals.
In March 2020, prisons across England and Wales were forced to stop all social visits in line with the Government’s lockdown measures.
It became a matter of urgency to help people in prison stay in touch with family and friends. The team moved quickly to adapt to the changing situation and widen the scope of their work from a limited pilot to a much bigger roll out.
In preparation for the pilot, UCPD had thoroughly reviewed different video calling software options and had worked with HMPPS to choose a supplier: Purple Visits.
Purple Visits makes use of advanced facial recognition technology. The software detects faces on the call that have not been pre-approved and automatically pauses the call. It also detects any nudity or other inappropriate behaviour.
Research with the four original pilot prisons provided valuable insights into how the service would actually work - from determining the length of calls, to how far in advance they could be booked.
A collaborative approach to overcoming obstacles
Even with this head start, there was a huge amount to do to roll out the service more widely.
And this now had to be done quickly, while the team were getting accustomed to working remotely, and movement was limited due to lockdown.
Over the next six weeks, the team would:
- Review and create an interim policy framework, Data Protection Impact Assessment and Equalities Impact Assessment
- Ensure security and safeguarding measures were in place so that callers are protected, and calls are not used to further criminal activity
- Design a way to make use of the existing prison network (Quantum) so that laptops could access the internet in the absence of a wifi connection
- Carry out hundreds of test calls and software penetration testing (this determines how secure the service is from malicious attack)
- Train prison staff to use the video call booking process and live call monitoring, with a particular emphasis on reducing the stress on prison staff coping with the impact of coronavirus
- Build new connections across MoJ and HMPPS and work collaboratively
Video calls alongside visits and phone calls
Even without the Coronavirus restrictions on visiting prisons, it’s becoming clear that video calls do offer some advantages over visits and phone calls.
- More accessible for those with family who are not local to the prison. Even though visitors can get financial help with visiting prison, if a journey is expensive or otherwise difficult to make, it will be made less frequently
- Less stressful for families to have the visit in the comfort of their home, especially for children who may find it difficult to be in a prison environment
- Good opportunity for people in prison to see their home, and perhaps their pets too
Building stronger connections
Feedback from people in prison and their friends and family has been hugely positive so far.
"Just seeing my wife has made it feel as though we were together I know having these visits will be great as she is disabled with MS and there are times she cannot come up to see me so the visit link makes so much sense."
Prisoner at HMP Highdown
"I have not seen my family in 9 months and it was good to see them."
Prisoner, HMP Swinfen Hall
"Loved being able to see the boys, they live too far away so can't see them on normal visits."
Prisoner, HMP Eastwood park
"My family lives around 200 miles away and it’s good to see them."
Prisoner, HMP Hull
Making video calls available in prisons across England and Wales became a necessity in early 2020. Yet it is clear that it’s become a popular and easy way for people to stay in touch with loved ones outside prison.
There may also be other uses for the technology - like legal visits, meetings with probation officers, and even job interviews.
The team is exploring some of these possibilities, as well as looking at how video calls can be made available alongside visits in the longer term.